The Off Switch for Your Personal Pain

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For many of us, the pursuit of happiness is closely related to the numbing of pain. Vacations are as much about shutting off cellphones and not answering emails as they are about sunny beaches. Addictive behaviors are as much about escaping unwanted feelings as they are about the activity itself. The Bible itself even defines paradise in terms of the absence of pain – “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21:4) So, in one sense, salvation is the absence of our present hurt.

Though there’s obviously no shortcut to experiencing salvation, I do believe God gives us resources to mitigate unnecessary hurt in this lifetime. One of these resources is his encouragement to in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Phil. 2:3-4) A Christian at some point has to see that caring for others is not something we do merely because we’re naughty if we don’t, but because we’re blessed when we do. 

In the early 1900s there was a Russian physiologist by the name of Alexei Ukhtomsky, whose main contribution to the scientific community was his “Principle of the Dominant Focus.” This principle stated that when it comes to the human nervous system, the brain can only focus on that which is causing the greatest stimulation. For instance, when it comes to pain, your brain doesn’t really register consciousness of two pains simultaneously though you may experience two separate pains simultaneously. So, let’s say you have a bad headache but you also recently sprained your ankle. If on a scale of 1 to 10, your headache is like a 6, but your sprained ankle is like a 3, that doesn’t mean that you’re experiencing pain at a 9. The pain reception doesn’t stack. Your brain would only focus on the primary stimulus, the headache pain, the 6. It’s all part of God’s brilliant design.

Now since there is one God who created this integrated physical, psychological, relational, spiritual world, the principles frequently overlap. You can’t register multiple pains simultaneously.

Consequently, while it may seem counterintuitive, the fastest way to overcome one pain would seemingly be to more deeply register a different pain. Furthermore, a unique characteristic of humanity is our ability to relate to the pain of other beings despite it not being our own personal pain. We call this empathy. Practically, what this means is that the most effective way for you to get over your own pain is … to occupy yourself with the pain of others. As you concern yourself with others ahead of self, you proportionately stop feeling so much pity for yourself. If you work to meet the needs of others you will feel proportionately less discontented. Empathy can help free you from your own pain.

As someone who has battled depression at various points throughout my life, I experientially know the deep self-focus often attached to the sadness. It’d be unfair to categorize everyone’s depression, so I’ll just speak for myself. I’ve never gotten depressed when I was deeply focused on the needs of others. I have gotten depressed focusing on my own wants and desires. I have gotten depressed constantly comparing myself to others. But taking God’s advice, “not looking to (my) own interests but…to the interests of the others”, has never created a period of overwhelming sadness for me.

Show me someone who’s obsessed with themselves, whether a high or low opinion of themselves, and I’ll show you a soon-to-be miserable soul. On the other hand, show me someone who’s so convinced of Christ’s providence and sufficiency that they’ve nearly forgotten about themselves, and I’ll show you someone who’s been liberated.

My primary evidence for this is none other than the Son of God himself. Jesus was the only truly other-focused person to ever walk the planet. In fact, in his last moments, at his most piercing pain, upon the cross, what kinds of things was Jesus crying out about? He reasonably could have been crying out about his head due to the crown of thorns, or his back due to the lashings, or the injustice due to the mistrials, or the betrayal and abandonment by his closest friends. But he doesn’t cry out about any of them. Instead, concerned about his mother’s well-being, he pointed her to his friend John and said, “Woman, here is your son now.” (John 19:26) Concerned about the souls of those who were crucifying him, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) All he could think about was someone other than himself. And because he thought about you and me instead of himself, our sins of self-obsession are washed away and can’t hurt us anymore.

The more the other-focused nature of our Savior melts our hearts, the more we become like him. Believe that because he was so obsessed with you, Jesus has done everything to take care of your eternal welfare. Believe that because he’s still so smitten with you, he constantly intercedes and works to take care of you. And if that’s true, then low and behold, you find yourself with all of this extra time and money and energy available for you to invest in the welfare of others.

Filling your calendar, your budget, and your mind with thoughts of others helps you imitate Christ and experience Christ (Eph. 5:1-2). But it will also numb some of the pain on the road to happiness.

 

NOTE: By encouraging an other-focus that helps alleviate personal pain, I’m not intending to be insensitive to those who are currently going through immense personal hurt. Of course someone in the ICU is going to struggle with physical pain. Of course someone who has recently lost a loved one will appropriately experience emotional turmoil. Of course there will be some pain in life that demands our attention. I’m merely making the case for the general truth that other-focusedness is not only a command, but a blessing from God. Processing pain involves information reception and communication. And in the same way that a human can only reasonably listen to one person in a conversation at a time, that same human brain can only focus on one dominant pain at a time. God’s commands are not arbitrary – they always have blessing attached.

Feel Free to Not “Be Yourself”

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The most commonly offered advice today from parents to children is simple, seemingly profound, and almost universally unchallenged: “Be Yourself.”

In The Road to Character, David Brooks muses on this. He highlights the recent prevalence of societal self-love doctrine:

As Ellen DeGeneres put it in a 2009 commencement address, “My advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine.” Celebrity chef Mario Batali advised graduates to follow “your own truth, expressed consistently by you.” Anna Quindlen urged another audience to have the courage to “honor your character, your intellect, your inclinations, and, yes, your soul by listening to its clean clear voice instead of following muddied messages of a timid world.” … “In her mega-selling book Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote that God manifested himself through “my own voice from within my own self….God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are.” (Road to Character, Brooks, pg. 7)

For many years, Americans have been converting to this doctrine of self-trust.

But it now appears the tide on this advice might be turning. Adam Grant, in perhaps my favorite article from last year, wrote a fantastic piece in the NY Times called “Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ is Terrible Advice.” Grant writes:

If I can be authentic for a moment: Nobody wants to see your true self. We all have thoughts and feelings that we believe are fundamental to our lives, but that are better left unspoken.

And he concludes:

Next time people say, “just be yourself,” stop them in their tracks. No one wants to hear everything that’s in your head. They just want you to live up to what comes out of your mouth.

Grant offers examples of individuals who have conducted a dangerous social experiment – doing everything they felt they wanted to do. This included the story of an author who tried for several weeks to live a completely “authentic life,” stating everything that he felt was true of himself. This meant that he told a colleague that he would have sex with her if she were single. He told his nanny that he would ask her out on a date if his wife left him. He exposed his daughter to the harsh, cold realities about the death of pets. He told his in-laws they were boring. That author eventually conceded defeat and concluded, “Deceit makes our world go round.”

Deceit as the driving force of life not only sounds sad, but I believe it’s untrue. Personal restraint and willful deception aren’t the same animal.

From a biblical perspective, it’s certainly true that encouraging “authentic selves,” i.e. unfiltering ourselves, is like streaming pure oxygen in front of a blow torch. “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” (Rom. 8:7) The most basic of God’s commands is to love God above all and love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt. 22:37-39) If you encourage your natural self, you will unquestionably nurture a “me first” self that is disrespectful to God and detrimental to humanity. A Christian, by definition, cannot practice a purely “be myself” philosophy.

And, as stated, even the secular world is beginning to admit that a level of what psychologists call “self-monitoring” is necessary, beneficial, and healthy. In fact, civilization is predicated on the idea of a collective people group who are willing to compromise some amount of self for the sake of the greater communal good. So, if you’re a bit of a lead foot, don’t be yourself in heavy traffic. If you love loud music, don’t be yourself late at night in your apartment complex. If you’re kind of a bully, please, by all means, pretend to be anybody else on the playground. Just don’t be yourself. Furthermore, as Grant points out, studies seem to suggest that high self-monitors – people who are constantly scanning their environments for social cues and adapting – generally are more likely to receive promotions, higher status, and responsibility in the corporate world. We’re beginning to understand that, to some extent, we must restrain and repress the natural self.

But how do you do this without deceit? If you have an innate desire to be me-focused, but you pretend that you are, by nature, other-focused, does that not make you an inauthentic hypocrite?

Again, the biblical perspective offers tremendous resource. The solution is not to pretend to be something you’re not (hypocrisy & deception) nor to merely “be yourself” (radical authenticity & acceptance of yourself in your current state). The secret comes in recognizing that God, by grace, has accepted you as the person the Father created, the Son redeemed, and the Holy Spirit now empowers you to be. And that person is not an authentic, independent individual per se, but an important part of the body of Christ.

Here’s the kicker. To truly be in the body, to truly become alive, you MUST die to yourself. In Christianity, life only comes after death. Resurrection only comes after burial. This is not an optional part of Christianity. It’s essential. And it’s completely alien to modern western individualism.  “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” (Matt. 16:25 NLT) The path to the life that really is life does not come from embracing the natural self, but killing it.

You want authenticity? Christians should be the first in line to transparently broadcast their frailties, their weaknesses, their struggles, their regrets. And yet this doesn’t psychologically break them, because their identity doesn’t come from their self-love, but in a greater verdict – the permanent love of God himself.

What kind of stability would we possess if, like John the Baptist, we were able to say, “Lord, my only pursuit is to know you and walk with you and serve you and be closer to you. I want to lose myself in you. I want to become less and you become greater. I want to fall into you, that your light would burn brighter” (cf. John 3:30)?

Furthermore, if we recognized that we are not yet finished products this side of heaven, but children whose hearts the Holy Spirit continues to operate on, we wouldn’t insist on the world accepting us (and our shortcomings) while being cut by our rough edges. Instead, we’d humbly offer our best, apologize for our faults, and demonstrate grace at the flaws of others.

It appears as though we’ve got a generational divide that still requires gospel healing. Millennials tend to perceive Boomers as deceptive, two-faced, living for appearances and hypocritically pretending to be something they’re not. Boomers tend to perceive Millennials as little monsters “being themselves” and demanding that the world think they’re wonderful. But regardless of generation or ideology, in Christianity the proud become humbled and the lowly become emboldened, because God sees every bit of your life and yet accepts you, not because you are yourself, but because he is himself.

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The Myth of Perpetual Christian Happiness

Does God want you to be happy?

Before I can even get the question mark out, most Christians will resoundingly affirm that, “Yes, of course a loving God wants me to be happy!” It’s merely taken for granted in the modern understanding of an omni-affectionate God, that God’s highest pursuit would be my immediate happiness.

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So, the Willy Wonka meme is overplayed, and this is way snarkier than I’d ever say it. But…the point is nonetheless made.

And thus, when life inevitably comes crashing down as a fallen world fails us, we wonder what went wrong. After all, has God not said, For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jer. 29:11) This verse is the first in the catechism of modern Christian comfort. The great irony is that in this verse God is speaking to a people group who’ve lost everything. The exiles in Babylon that Jeremiah writes to have lost family members in a Babylonian siege, they’ve lost their homes, their careers, their financial assets, everything. They were not happy. They had no circumstantial reason to be. And yet, they were afforded hope, because God still loved them and sought a future of ultimate joy for them.

It reminds me of the ironic disappointment of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. At one point, literally talking with a resurrected Jesus (unbeknownst to them), they expose their hearts by confessing, The chief priests and our rulers handed (Jesus) over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:20-21) Allow me to paraphrase. They’re saying, “We thought Jesus was going to save us, but he just got crucified instead.” See, when you have a more sober biblical interpretation, you realize that Jesus, God’s Son, saved us precisely by getting crucified for us. But these disciples thought Jesus couldn’t save them, BECAUSE he got crucified. This suggests the Emmaus disciples were looking for a Messiah other than one that would save them from their sins. They were seeking a Messiah that would save them merely from some negative life circumstances. Every single one of us makes the same mistake.

Every one of us, as our first instinct, would identify something other than our own self-centered sin as the culprit trying to steal our happiness. “If I could just get ahead at work. If I can just get through school. If I could just get my finances in order. If I could just get this health problem taken care of. If I could just lose those last 5 lbs. If I could just get my husband to be a little more _________, THEN…”

Put differently, many modern Christians merely want a little “chicken soup for the soul” and “their best life now” and this quest for perpetual happiness in a fallen world is not only short-sighted and false, it’s unhealthy. I can prove it. If you were perpetually happy in a fallen, sinful world, you’d have to either be delusional or a sociopath.

For instance, people in the hospital who are loaded full of dilaudid, morphine, or oxycodone are typically happy, because things feel good. They’re also incapable of operating heavy machinery…because they’re delusional. They’re not in touch with reality. The situation hasn’t actually gotten better. Instead, their sensors of reality have been numbed. They’re temporarily insane and therefore don’t realize how bad certain things are. In a fallen world, it’s possible to impair yourself in such a way that you feel good much of the time. The exchange, however, is that you become proportionately out of touch with reality – DELUSIONAL. From a spiritual perspective, American excess is largely the legal, capitalistic self-medication of unhappiness. The American Dream itself is virtual reality.

On the other hand, if you realize how bad certain things are in the world, and yet you’re  still completely happy, you’re a SOCIOPATH. Let me put it this way – let’s say circumstances in your life are great, everything is going exactly the way you’d hoped for – great job, great marriage, great health, great friends – you’re perpetually happy. Wonderful. What about everyone else on the planet? If you are perfectly happy while other people are falling sick, starving, being oppressed, dying without Christ…then you’re a sociopath. You care for no one but yourself. A sociopath, by definition, is one who lack’s any social conscience. Consequently, this incessant quest for my own personal individual happiness is a self-centered and sinful illusion.

So, let me say it again very clearly: If you are perpetually happy in a fallen, sinful world, you’d have to either be delusional or a sociopath. If it isn’t obvious, neither of those is in step with a child of God.

The negative circumstances under which we suffer in this life are not really the things that enslave us and therefore are not worth all of our energy to attempt avoiding or escaping. They’re simply further evidence that we live in a fallen world. It means you and I were built for a bigger and better world.

The thing that really enslaves you and me is the sin that freezes our heart and clouds our judgment. Consequently, we don’t need a Messiah who makes circumstances in this world a little better. We need a Messiah who, by paying for our sins, redeems us to a new life entirely.

“He was crucified, but we thought he would redeem us.” (Luke 24:20-21 para.) Like Cleopas on the Road to Emmaus, when people fail to see the depth of their slavery to sin, they’re looking for a Messiah to help them feel a little better, who will improve their circumstances, not redeem them.

As a Christian, the grace and promises of Jesus Christ fuel me to a deep and unshakeable joy and optimism. A Christian grieves the problems of this world, but with a foundational hope underneath (1 Thess. 4:13). As one who has struggled throughout life with occasions of severe anxiety and depression, the gospel gives me an anchor to weather storms. The gospel has such buoyant force that it prevents me from hitting rock bottom. And yet, understanding that I’m a mere stranger in this world, a visitor, an ambassador for Christ in a deeply broken world, gives me the permission to not be happy all the time. And that’s actually quite liberating.

No, despite what I might say in the moment when you ask, I’m not always having a good day. But I’m also, in truth, never really having a bad day, because, in Christ, I have a constant awareness that a day is coming when “bad” won’t exist, in the presence of the Lord. And that allows me to be a real person right now.

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